Coquille Tribe harvesting organic cranberries

CHARLESTON — Aiming to capitalize on a growing demand for raw, organic produce, the Coquille Tribe is taking the hard route to harvesting cranberries this season.

To harvest deep red berries in the raw, the tribe will put its back into the year's bountiful crop through a technique called dry-picking, which hasn't been practiced in about 10 years.

"The work is much more labor-intensive," said Bill Snyder, manager of Coquille Cranberries, located in the heart of the Coquille Tribal Reservation near Charleston.

Oregon's bumper crop this season is due to heavy spring pollination and a long growing season. However, last year's record harvests in Wisconsin and Massachusetts, combined with the downturn in the economy, has left a surplus, which will squeeze the market this year, Snyder said.

The growing demand for fresh, organic produce could help buck the competition.

"Organic cranberries are a real thin slice of the total production in Oregon and nationally, so there was a niche there they wanted to maintain," Snyder said.

The traditional method would be to flood the bogs, causing the berries to float to the surface and corral them so they can be lifted by an elevator and dumped into a truck. It's the most efficient method if the goal is to produce a product to be used in juice or jelly.

To harvest the fruit dry, it is imperative the berries have no contact with moisture throughout the harvesting process.

"It's literally a dry berry," Snyder said. "With water, the fruit breaks down quickly."

Berries aren't picked until the sun burns the dew off the ground.

"We started picking this morning just after 11 a.m. and we'll pick until we run out of daylight or until a dense fog rolls in again," Snyder said Friday.

The unconventional strategy of dry-picking requires a host of new machinery, which the tribe is renting, and more contract workers, presumably with strong backs.

Workers guide a mechanic berry collector, called a furford, up and down six 10-acre bogs. The device has a rotating belt that plucks fruit from the ground in two-foot swaths and spits the berries into burlap sacks. The sacks are unloaded once they reach their 50- to 60- pound capacity and are hauled to the cleaning station, where they are hefted up one by one and emptied into a viner.

The viner shakes out the vegetation, drops the berries onto a conveyor belt, which spills them into a crate.

Crates are stacked, packed and transported to Wilt Farm in Corvallis, where the berries are sorted by size, packaged and delivered to markets.

Eugene-based Organically Grown will distribute the berries, which will be sold at Whole Foods, Market of Choice and Fred Meyer, among other grocers.

As a certified organic grower, Coquille Cranberries abides by strict production standards set forth by Quality Assurance International, certified by the USDA. It forbids the use of synthetic stimulants and encourages an eco-friendly growing practice.

"Personally, I like to buy organic," Snyder said. "It's a tastier food. And, typically, organic (caters) to a more local market."

This season, Coquille Cranberries expects to produce about 100,000 pounds — an increase over last years 30,000 pounds — and generate about $250,000 in revenue.

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